You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Jeff Theman

I turned 40 years old yesterday – July 28, 2017. There was a time just a couple years ago where I didn’t think I’d survive and get to see this somewhat irrelevant milestone.

Preston at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio on 7/28/2017

Since 2008, there’s two days each year I take off from work – July 28th and October 4th. Every. Year. Both involve me and my dog, Preston.

On July 6, 2006, Preston and two other dogs were confiscated from a home in Akron, Ohio – about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, where the owners allegedly used them for dogfighting purposes. I say allegedly because the owners were never charged with the animal cruelty crime, but instead on only illegal drug charges. From there the three “pit bull” dogs were brought to an area humane society where they were kept as evidence while the case moved forward. This was pre-Michael Vick, so the outrage around the country towards animal fighting “sports” wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. And in Ohio, where we had a statewide restriction (BSL) of “pit bull” dog ownership since 1987, these dogs taken from situations like this were typically systematically killed without much, if any, publicity at all.

After Preston was brought to the shelter, he was visited by a woman who owned a rescue specifically for “pit bull” dogs in the northeast Ohio area, and began to walk him around the confines of their property. Along the way, because of the stance back then about dogs who came from this type of environment, the other two dogs brought in were killed, but Preston’s life was spared, temporarily at least, mostly due to being a shelter favorite.

On a Friday afternoon, the shelter gave a courtesy call to the rescue woman, to notify her that Preston would be put to sleep at 4pm that day. She then hung up, and scurried to find a foster home where he can go. Luckily, she found a safe, temporary place, and he would end up being in the rescue until I officially was able to adopt him on Saturday, October 4, 2008.

The entire encounter could be considered accidental – a coincidence of sorts, due to the only reason I was visiting the rescue to begin with, was for research on my documentary film, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent“, which was about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in Ohio, that labeled all “pit bull” dogs inherently vicious at birth. I knew there was something special about this dog, as I never felt the way I did about an animal when our eyes first locked. Within 15 minutes of meeting him, I had already made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog.

Soon after, the suburb of Cleveland I was living in – Lakewood, Ohio, proposed and passed a ban of pit bull dogs within their city limits, claiming the state law as being the primary reason for the legislation, which delayed my ability to adopt Preston. It took me six months, and a new residence (which wasn’t easy, due to landlords perceptions of his “breed”), but on October 4th, I was finally able to welcome him home.

One of the first photos I took of Preston after adoption in 10/2008

We began on a journey together, where we both took the time to understand and trust each other, which only helped to solidify our natural bond, while my editor and I went to work and finished the documentary. There were some lows during this time, such as my grandpa passing away in 2009, and the loss of the human version of the love of my life, but there were many highs as well, such as the 20-some screenings GTPI was screened at around the United States, and other recognition for our accomplishments because of it.

Then, towards the middle to end of 2014, things went south in a hurry. I started to notice I was in the infancy stages of severe anxiety and depression, mostly due to some of the problems in the field I had immersed myself in, as well as all the unnecessary pain and suffering – to both human and animal, I saw on a daily basis, which made me react in uncharacteristic ways. My mental health, as well as my reputation within the community I built a name in, was crashing and burning simultaneously together. Without getting into specifics, my personal life suffered greatly, too.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

I remember going to sleep nightly with all three of my dogs, holding Preston close to me with his head resting alongside mine on my pillow, and repeatedly telling him “I love you so much”, over and over and over again, until I drifted asleep. It became so bad that on the early morning of November 2, 2014, I closed the door to my home office and wrote what was to be my final blog entry titled “Save Me, and I’ll Save You“, with the intention of making it public, and then blowing my head clean off with my S&W 9mm. Weird, because I purchased that handgun for my and my dogs safety, but I never thought I’d have to protect myself from myself.

At the moment I decided to proceed, Preston nudged the door open with his nose. I took one look into those beautiful brown eyes of his, and wept. Preston prevented me from carrying out an action I had no way to take back.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

The following spring, I got into a serious auto accident, and suffered a concussion – the third of my life, from slamming into the cement highway guardrail on a pouring rain morning commute to the office. This manifested itself into post concussion syndrome a month or so later, which lasted for nearly a year. During this, I visited all three of Cleveland’s main hospitals seeking their help and expertise. They all prescribed several pharmaceuticals, which made my suicidal thoughts resurface again. I had no quality of life – I went to work, took my meds to ease the pain, went home after the 8 hour day, let out and fed the dogs, and was in bed by 7 that night…every night, most nights without dinner. I felt like a shell of myself, like a robot…numb to everything. I knew, this was not living.

On a January 2016 morning, I made the decision that if I am going to survive, I will need to do it myself. All by myself…but, with the help of my dogs, obviously. I threw away the prescriptions, and began venturing out in the cold with my camera and a dog (mainly Preston), photographing the urban decay of Cleveland. There’s something beautiful about rust and graffiti-laced, dilapidated vacant buildings, and the way they appear in the dead of winter. Bringing one of my dogs with me served two purposes. They still needed to be walked, and it gave me a companion to be a pair of eyes for me while I get lost in the moment framing my next shot.

A scene captured at Euclid Beach in Cleveland, Ohio in 02/2016

Art and expressing my creative self was one of the things that was missing prior to, and by reintroducing it back into my life, it was the therapy that temporarily took away the pain I was in. My dogs – specifically Preston, were the only reason that kept me from “pulling the trigger” – both figuratively and literally speaking. Which bought me time to get myself better – mentally and physically.

Since, I still have some bad days, but they’re not as often as before. Each day my well-being gets a little better. Because of those things experienced, I now am armed with a new sense of what’s important, and the message it has with the creation of this non-profit organization I founded, WOOFobia, because I noticed a growing need for more advocacy work which included both dogs and their human counterparts. Especially with the spike in cases of mental illness, and trend of them being brushed aside where nobody wants to talk about, which leads to more suffering of all at the hands of it.

Back on July 28, 2006, I was at my local Honda dealership buying a brand new car for a birthday present to myself, at the exact same time Preston’s life was to expire. When the rescue stepped up and fate saved him from his demise, it happened on my birthday. His new life started the day we celebrate mine. Some things are just supposed to happen, like celebrating the human-canine bond with your best friend, hero and soulmate (or souldog), as we do every July 28th and October 4th, since we crashed into each other’s lives.

It brings up the age old question – who rescued whom?

— Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
River Fire Films, LLC, Filmmaker/Director/Producer

— To submit your “You Had Me At WOOF” story, click HERE! —

breed discrimination

To Err Is Human

Humans are exceptionally complex beings. The same can also be said for other species who we coexist together on this planet, especially those we share our homes with, such as dogs and other pets. In its simplest form, like us, they are not only in the world, but aware and conscious of it. They are sentient individuals who depend on the same basic principles for survival as we do – air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink.  Also like us, they desire shelter, companionship, freedom of movement, and the avoidance of pain.

But, too often, we attempt to simplify and compartmentalize individuals by broad, sweeping generalizations, regularly by stereotyping by appearance or physical traits. We do this naturally to be more efficient in life by fitting everything into neat, little boxes, to help satisfy our intuition to quickly analyze, and possibly predict our world around us, to avoid a potential threat to our well-being. These mental shortcuts we learn from family, friends, peers and other influences, such as the media, are a result of how we process and communicate “knowledge”, especially those with negative associations – whether we are directly or indirectly affected by them.

There are many examples that can be found where an accident is not a matter of life and death. We chalk it up to “To Err Is Human”, which is used to exonerate any fault or blame, and say – “No harm, no foul”. But, what about cases where zero error in judgement is imperative and expected, and comes with a price if an when it does occur?

Laws like Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) – or breed discrimination (BDL) to be more accurate, which target certain breeds or types of dogs as inherently vicious at birth, are found in all 3 types of developed human settlements – urban, rural and suburban environments. They can include one or more targeted breeds of canine, which almost always includes at least “Pit Bull” dogs. Here in the United States, these laws can be enforced as a restriction (i.e…liability insurance, public muzzling, among others) or a ban, and be implemented at the top branch of government (Federal – entire country), state, or municipality (local – county, city, town, etc.).

In other countries, it can be implemented in a region of land independently governed called a Province, as is the case with Ontario, Canada; or in places like the United Kingdom, which incorporates 4 separate countries – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, among other examples around the world.

Branched off of the actual laws, there’s also policy that has discriminated towards one or more breeds/types of dog, including the insurance (home and rental) and housing industries, as well as animal boarding, as well as other policies. These laws enacted by government are oftentimes used as a tool by law enforcement and humane agencies, directed at specific classes of people (social or racial prejudice), due to the way laws work where you cannot discriminate on a protected class, but dog owners aren’t a protected class.

There’s internet memes that have become running jokes about the inability to accurately identify dogs via visual identification alone. These images display half a dozen or so images of various items and all are labeled ‘Pit Bull” beneath them to comically show the plight of the cause.

The chore to enforce and carry out the laws are often bestowed upon the the local municipality’s Animal Control Department, which frequently produces subjective identification practices, and otherwise innocent dogs (if for not the law) are impacted – at times with the loss of their life. None of this, mind you, is due to how the individual dog behaved, which is something we all hope to be defined by – what we do, say and how we act.

Although the following scenario presented below humorously characterizes the failure of enforcement and makes a case against the laws and policies which identify dogs as vicious due to breed (or type), the real life situations of people and their family members affected are anything but funny. They’re downright scary.

This morning, I drove to the local grocery store to pick up a few items needed to make breakfast for me and my three dogs. It’s an every weekend ritual we do…after all, we are creatures of habit. First, I went to the produce section and grabbed some bananas, then ventured to the bread and dairy aisles to grab English muffins and butter spread. On towards the checkout registers I then went.

Passing through, I stopped at a rack that had an assortment of pet related items, like the dog bowls with photographs of breed specific dogs to attract those who adore certain breeds below.

First, there was one with PUG on the side, and a photo of a typical looking Pug inside.
Next, BICHON, with a typical Bichon Frise…
LAB, with a typical black Labrador Retriever puppy…
A BOXER with a typical Boxer…
Then, AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD, with a typi-…{abrupt record scratch sound}, Say what?!?

Now, I understand that this can also go against me, because I am looking at a photo of a dog and also visually identifying the breed, but I’d like to think in no way would someone say this dog inside the bowl conforms to an Australian Shepherd (see AKCs photo).

Clearly this was a human error at the manufacturing plant these bowls are mass produced at. Nobody got harmed. We can all have a good chuckle at the expense of them. There’s always tomorrow to correct this mistake.

With this, there’s a strong argument that can be made which shows the very reason these laws and policies are inept – human error. On top of that, animal control departments serve primarily one function – to keep the city safe from potentially dangerous dogs and other animals. Nowhere in their job description does it give them formal training to identify dogs by breed, and nowhere in their job description is it needed.

If we are to truly protect our communities from dangerous dogs, we need generic, breed-neutral, dog laws, so the focus doesn’t get sidetracked on the actual problem. Our first initiative at WOOFobia is focusing the attention on removing any law or policy that singles out a type of dog in places around the world, and helping to ensure all dogs are judged on a level playing field to secure the Human-Canine Bond. Because killing innocent family dogs is something that does not deserve forgiveness.

We invite you to help join us in this fight. To collaborate and volunteer, Contact Us HERE!